Southampton Art Gallery, Southampton

Charles Darwent on Uncommon Ground, Land Art in Britain: It may not be big, but it is clever

4.00

British land art used to be depressingly small-scale – but this excellent exhibition breaks new ground

I have had one piece of hate-mail as art critic for this paper, in 2003, from a land artist currently in a show called Uncommon Ground at the Southampton City Gallery. "You just don't get it, which is your perogative [sic]," hissed the letter. "You are both, but it is worse to be an amateur than a cynic." Ouch.

It seemed to me, a decade ago, that this pettiness was telling of British land art as a whole. I had just spent a happy fortnight driving across the American south-west, from Walter De Maria's Lightning Field to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, via Michael Heizer's Double Negative. You wanted land art? That was land art. The British variant seemed depressingly scaled-down, like a symphony played on spoons. I may have used the word "whimsical" about it. So, I set off to Southampton, hoping to find I'd been wrong.

And, to some extent, I had been, although for the right reasons. British land art is small-minded, in the sense of being about smallness.

As with cowboy films, American land art takes as its starting point an idea of the epic, its aesthetics measured outwards, in increments of vastness. Lightning Field sits on 9,000 acres! James Turrell's Roden Crater is 600 feet high! By comparison, Spiral Jetty's 10-acre site makes it a miniature. This is not a kind of work that is open to artists from a crowded island a third of the size of Texas.

So, the first thing you notice about the land art in Uncommon Ground is that almost none of it involves land. It may involve photographing or filming land, measuring its surface, walking across it or turning it into words: but land itself, no. If American land art is Melville and Longfellow, British is the short story and sonnet. It is necessarily restrictive, and as a result diverse.

So diverse, in fact, that at the start of Uncommon Ground you wonder if "British land art" is a useful term at all. The curators of this clever show have broken their subject down into parts, all dating from between 1966 and 1979. There are surprise inclusions. Antony Gormley a land artist? Well, yes, for a time in the late 1970s. But then pretty well every inclusion is a surprise.

What do Gormley and Garry Fabian Miller and Hamish Fulton and Susan Hiller have in common? During the period in question, they all made work that in some way responded to the land. (A few still do.) I say "in some way" because their responses were so varied and the land so diverse.

The show's curators have listed these variously – by theme as Romantics or Environmentalists, by subject (Parks and Commons, Industrial and Working Landscapes), by material and process (Walking, Filming, Excavation, and so on). But is there a common thread in Uncommon Ground?

There are three. First, to be a land artist in Britain between 1966 and 1979 meant not making the kind of art other people were making: that is mostly to say Op and Pop, shiny art. Even the campest work in this show – Anthony McCall's film, Landscape for Fire, is a contender – has a seriousness that defines itself against the bright colours and shallow surfaces of painting at the time. It is earthy, deep.

And there is something else as well. Gormley's first land art piece had been made in the Arizona desert, although the work was on an insistently man-sized scale – Gormley built and then took apart a cairn, and threw its constituent rocks as far as he could. This was taking a British land art aesthetic into the American lion's den and refusing to be cowed. And yet there was a yearning for what the Americans had, the luxury of possibility.

This had not always been a uniquely New World commodity. There lurked, in the British visual memory, a time when not every acre of land was husbanded, when spaces were wide and open. Much of the work in Uncommon Ground tries to recapture that moment: it may have been a post-empire thing. Miller's photo suite, Sections of England: Sea Horizons, re-invokes William Turner, while Andy Goldsworthy's Slate Throw – the artist, tousle-haired, standing on a crag – has a feel of Caspar David Friedrich.

This is not cheap nostalgia. The other thing you notice about much of the work in this excellent show is its air of apocalypse, from the scavenging actors of the Boyle Family's filmed event, Dig, to Derek Jarman's arcadian but worryingly empty A Journey to Avebury. British land art looks backwards with one eyebrow raised, because looking forward seems too scary.

To 3 Aug (02380 832277)

Critic's Choice

Step into the Wellcome Collection in London, and outside your comfort zone. Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan, features 46 artists who are part of social welfare establishments, and proves that the results of art therapy can be fresh and entertaining (to 30 June). Ponder the question of intention at The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, a touring exhibition which is currently at Nottingham Contemporary (to 30 June).

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea